The warning for El Niño is currently rather high. In Australia we all remember water restrictions of the past and their devastating effect on gardens and turf. Well it looks like it’s probable again. We’ve had a pretty good run without water problems for a few years now, but we know that will end one day.
Climate models surveyed by the Australian Bureau of Meteorology continue to indicate that El Niño is likely to develop by spring 2014. The Bureau’s ENSO Tracker remains at El Niño ALERT, indicating at least a 70% chance of El Niño developing in 2014. For Australia, El Niño is often associated with below-average rainfall over southern and eastern inland areas and above-average daytime temperatures over southern parts of the continent. Some dams around Australia are down significantly in storage levels compared to last year, and if El Niño does strike, levels could drop more. Overall the main Australian dam capacity has dropped from 69.1 % to 64.2%. June saw very dry times in many parts of Australia, and July has started dry as well.
So what can we do to protect our gardens before El Niño strikes again? This could be as soon as this summer, but in all likelihood it’s not far off. We all need to take care of some housekeeping soon. It is much harder to do this in summer compared to late winter or early spring. Gardening in 40 degree heat is never fun, and relying on the rainfall we have had in recent years could be risky practice.
Things to do:
In late winter or early spring, incorporate organic matter into your garden. Once the drought is here it may be too late. Organic matter acts like a sponge in the soil, helping it retain water. You can either dig the organic matter in when you’re preparing a new garden area (which also aerates the soil), or spread it on the surface and let worms and other soil biota mix it in for you.
Cut back older plants in spring to get new growth. Reinvigorated plants will have a better chance of surviving the next drought.
Rejuvenate the lawn, and avoid using drought susceptible types, unless you want to re-turf again once the next drought hits major population centres. e.g. avoid cool season grasses such as fescue and rye in the southern states. Aeration can really help with water infiltration later in summer. Use organic matter as part of any topdressing mix used on your lawn.
Space plants so they do not have too much competition. If planting this spring, the new plants will need more water than the older plants for the first summer or two. So remember which ones were planted this year and give them a little more water this summer than the well-established plants.
Water deeply. You can train your lawn or plants to be drought tolerant. If you water a number of times per week, you are not encouraging your plants to find water deeper in the soil. One deep water each week will encourage plants and turf to grow deeper roots, and chase the water down. In times of drought this keeps green life far healthier.
Mulch using chunky mulch. Mulch that has very few fine particles in it, and mainly larger chunks lets water through when irrigated or when it rains. Light rain often will not penetrate mulch with lots of fines, as the mulch becomes hydrophobic, and besides, chunky mulch is far better at outcompeting weeds and stopping weed seed germination. Mulch with lots of fines actually helps weed seeds germinate, as it acts like a potting mix. Weeds will compete with plants for water in drought, so keeping weeds out of the garden is another drought damage avoidance strategy. Mulch reduces evaporation of water from the soil, and also helps keep the soil cooler on hot summer days.
If you still have a water tank, use it to reduce your water bill. Although water restrictions are unlikely this summer, in some places it is possible if El Niño really kicks in, and who knows what could happen the year after.
Do not lose all memory of previous droughts and water restrictions. Always irrigate and garden with water conservation in mind, as this preparation will help when severe drought returns.
Plant drought tolerant species in new gardens or if replanting parts of old gardens. Over the last decade lots of great new plants have been developed for drought tolerant gardening, both native and exotic. Some of our old drought-hardy shrub favourites like the humble azalea have even more drought tolerant examples, such as the new Encore Azaleas like Autumn Royalty and Autumn Twist and, as a bonus, they are also lace bug resistant.
Then of course we have our tough beautiful natives such as Lomandra, Dianella, Westringia, Callistemon, Hardenbergia, types of long-lived kangaroo paw (Anigozanthos) and many more.
Severe drought is by no means certain, but there is a 70% chance of El Niño this year, and if that happens and you live in south-eastern Australia, it pays to be prepared. Getting prepared for drought has general garden benefits and displays good horticultural practice.